"Politicians have ruined this state. Boys like me are given false hopes every election. The Army should take over the entire administration." —Bhaben Sarma, late-twenties, temporary peon at Guwahati, from Barama in ULFA-dominated Nalbari district, Assam.
"Father says only married women can vote. I am unmarried, I won’t vote. Tell me, what’ll happen if I vote? My brothers vote, nothing happens." —Rampyari Baoriya, 19, Sherpur in Dahni, Rajasthan.
These are voices from a lost constituency. Apathetic, alienated, angry soundbytes from a shamelessly ignored vote-bank comprising over 20 crore young Indian citizens. Yes, today one among every four voters, conservative calculations reveal, is between age 18 and 30. And this huge young electorate is hugely disenchanted, disillusioned and disgusted with the country’s politics and politicians. Inheritors of the 21st century India that is barely 700 days away, they are frustrated at the sheer neglect of their needs in the electoral agendas of parties that hanker to lead the country into the next millennium.
United by common aspirations and anxieties the Youth Constituency remains unidentified, untargeted and unaddressed by the same unscrupulous vote scroungers who would rather divide and group them into caste, creed, class, religion, region and gender for ballot-box triumphs. No politician, this constituency feels, talks or listens to it. Worse, no politician is worth talking or listening to.
Or, some feel, even voting for. "We are campaigning for a boycott of the Lok Sabha elections. Only revolutionary struggle will free people from these politicians. None takes us, the youth, as a constituency. All are same barring colours. Inherent fascists. We have to go to the streets to bring about this revolution," fumes
Jennifer Coutinho, 23-year-old president of Vidyarthi Pragati Sangathan in Mumbai. In quieter tones, 30-year-old Bhopal-based proprietor of Divya Scooter Repairs Sanjay Jain says: "This farce of an election should be stopped, the President should rule for the next 20 years. If they cannot give me a stable government, they cannot expect me to stand in a long queue every year."
Angrier, Sunil Solanki of NREC Degree college in Uttar Pradesh’s small town Khurja dares politicians to ask for his vote. "Just let a leader come in front of me. I’ll beat him to pulp. They use us every election for rallies, for campaigning, for booth capturing and then throw us out...no, kick us out. Let them ask for my vote, they’ll get a kick each." So furious are Sharma and his friends that some 30 of them have launched an apolitical party to combat The Politician.
Hardly surprising then that no party was perceived as honest by 50 per cent of the 2,010 respondents (age 18 to 30) interviewed for the Outlook-MODE opinion poll conducted in 10 urban and semiurban areas. The other questions posed by the poll had the largest number of respondents choosing to tick "None" when asked for the political party most liberal, with a global outlook, hardworking or concerned for the country. Though a chunk—40 per cent—did say the BJP was most efficient among other political formations probably because it is still to be tested, another 40 per cent felt that no party fitted the bill. Most significantly, perhaps, 43 per cent, and the largest chunk again, felt no party is Young at Heart.
Little needed evidence perhaps in a country where most parties are led by people who were young no less than three decades ago. At a time perhaps when the oldest amongst our young constituents were just about born. Be it Sitaram Kesri, Lal Krishna Advani, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Inder Kumar Gujral, Jyoti Basu or Harkishen Singh Surjeet—those at the helm of the mainstream political formations are in their seventies.
In a globalising world that shares so much through television beams, the Indian youth is constantly fed with images of young world leaders—the 51-year-old US president Bill Clinton, first chosen for the job at 46, or the 45-year-old British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Further, with the MNC culture dictating trends in the corporate world, the pressure to be successful at a young age is immense. One is either successful by 30 or never, seems to be the unwritten rule. People heading important businesses today are much younger than a decade ago, and they aren’t willing to bestow unconditional reverence on the aged leader.
"Sure, don’t dump the aged in old homes but for god’s sake stop the doddering senile from chalking out India’s agenda for the next century...Madhavrao Scindia at 50 something is hailed a young leader," ridicules 28-year-old paan shop owner Manoj Mishra in the capital’s Neeti Bagh area. Dr Sujit Minachekar, 27-year-old dentist who lives in the far-flung Mumbai suburb Bhiwandi, feels that the country deserves better than old leaders who have forgotten their mission in their obsession for the gaddi. In agreement, Harvinder Singh Bhalla, first year student at RKDF Engineering College in Mandi Deep, Madhya Pradesh, says he’s fed up of corrupt old politicians who should retire.
But it’s more the corrupt politician than the ageing one who seems to put off the young. While the latter perhaps inhibits the young, the former repels. Most students at Kashmir University in Srinagar dismiss politicians as a pack of thieves: "Sab chor hain." Echoing the sentiment, first year student of English at Calcutta’s Ashutosh College Shayar Nag says: "The general feeling among our generation is that politicians are corrupt, dirty people. We should keep away from them, irrespective of which party they belong to."
While researching this story, in fact, Outlook stumbled upon different versions of the same perception that the country’s young share about elected representatives—very low opinions indeed. Politicians were repeatedly referred to as scamsters who will steal from uniform deals to telephone tenders, prostitutes who can be bought for a price, goons who beat each other up at assemblies, fascists who will murder for religion and slimes who grovel for a ticket. The most damning statement, perhaps, was the most understated one. Said 19-year-old Tejaswita Karpe, Marathi literature student at Mumbai’s Ruia college: "There is no idealism anymore. It ended with Mahatma Gandhi."
What makes a teenager so despondent? Why this incredible hopelessness in an age that has been immortalised by poets for its optimism? Professor Ashum Gupta from the Department of Psychology in the Delhi University attempts an analysis. "It’s because they have been let down so often. I remember how thrilled my students were when a scholarly man like Narasimha Rao became the leader of the nation. Look how he went—shrouded in shameful controversy. Time and again young trust has been assaulted. Electoral politics is not value-based. And no party has bothered to single out the young as a group and looked into their concern."
True, the one plank that truly unites the country’s young, whether in metros, small towns or villages is the desperation for employment. But with Stability, Bofors and Ayodhya hogging this election’s agenda, employment seems too drab an issue to talk about.
"When will they be done with flogging bloody dead issues? What’ll it take for a party to say I don’t care who pinched money off a gun deal or who apologises for breaking a mosque? But I do care that a student of environmental science begs for an American visa for the lack of opportunities here," says Prabir Dutta, student at IIT Delhi. Jobless for the past eight years, Srinagar-based science graduate Afshan Jabeen asks what has kept Farooq Abdullah from providing the employment opportunities he had promised last elections. Unknown to Jabeen, Gunaram Kalita of Baihata Chariali in Assam, poses a similar question: "What do I get out of voting this election?" In several temporary jobs for the past few years, Kalita in his late-twenties is unemployed again and the last thing on his mind now is the forthcoming elections.
For a young labourer couple from Bihar’s Singhbhum, elections mean even less. Without work for the last two weeks, they squat for hours in front of a contractor’s office at Badarpur near the Delhi-Haryana border. Questions about elections perplex them: "We didn’t do anything." Futile explanations later, they maintain, "Tell the contractor to give us work, our child is sick. We’ll vote for you."
It follows then that Chitraprabha Venkareddy, 21, a Dharwad-based student of journalism in Karnataka University, wonders "how issues like Bofors will help solve the country’s problems like education, poverty and hunger." At 19, Jyotsna Rani Patra, Arts degree student in Orissa’s Naharkanta, dismisses this election as "issueless". More critical in her assessment, 27-year-old Lipika Sen, copy supervisor at Delhi-based advertising firm Percept Chuo Senko, shrugs at the irrelevance of the glibtalking pre-poll campaigns: "This election is nothing else but every party’s quest for a Don who can help the other paunchy, corrupt, self-centred sidelings stay in power for longer. They are going to make no difference to our lives. The young are busy and have no time for playing the fool’s role in this farce."
This reluctance to waste premium time on things that make no difference to their quality of life contributes largely to the indifference that the young feel towards politics. Sunil Lulla, general manager MTV India, who has been monitoring young adult attitudes closely, says that the buzzword this generation is personal success: "And the young see politics and politicians as contributing nothing to fulfil this aspiration. After Me, come public issues which could affect Me. Issues such as Environment, AIDS, Civic Order...and even there the politician is not seen as a change agent."
Interestingly, music channel MTV’s findings on "Young Indians and Socio-Political Issues" based on extended focus group discussions, peer and friendship pair studies reveals: The young are oriented in the "No Solution" mode and in the process abdicating responsibility. Responses range from "What can I do about it?" to "I don’t feel like voting, no point, makes no difference" to "I don’t want to get involved." The paradigm, the MTV study concludes, in which they operate is—"Let’s get on with our lives and have fun."
Not surprisingly, commerce graduate C.C. Savin, 23, who looks after his family’s coffee plantation in Mudigere taluk of Karnataka, says most peers treat going to vote like going to the movies.
So then, the young are to blame as well? Success seekers who are busy with themselves? No revolutionary fire in the belly, no fiery desire to change the world? Vikram Diesh, member, advisory committee on Youth Affairs in the ministry of Human Resources Development, disagrees vehemently. "You can’t keep a group jobless, directionless, missionless and then blame it for being self-centred and confused. Have we offered them any role in planning policy for the country? How many leaders have emerged from the youth wings in political parties? The fact is that politicians are scared to mobilise this enormous energy and see it united. There is no space in these corrupt parties for idealism or revolutionary thoughts.There is no role for eager youth in a Babudom," Diesh observes.
Little wonder then that the draft of the National Youth Policy doing the rounds of various government offices currently seems so confused. Youth, if this policy ever sees the light of the day, is now going to be absurdly defined as people between age 10 and 35. "It’s too broad a spectrum. It’ll do little for anyone. How are we going to access information, services and policies relevant to people with such different needs?" asks Sagari Singh, project director, Adolescent Girls Programme for the Population Council. Moreover, Singh feels, while the draft youth policy is a wonderful essay of good intents, it is really low on concrete policies.
But then there are many such absurdities in the government’s attitudes. The population programme that should have the youth ministry involved is with Family and Welfare, the training programme for youth employment under the ministry of rural affairs. But with most ministers busy sorting out the coalition mess to stay in power just that little longer, no one seems to have either the time or intent to undo these muddles.
"We are squandering the gains of democracy thanks to our corrupt polity. Pushing the country to fascism. Disillusionment is growing rapidly, pushing many youngsters to hardline thoughts: get the military, an autocrat, espouse Hindutva—these are thoughts very openly expressed by many today," says Rajesh Bhattacharya, general secretary of the Presidency College Students Association in Calcutta.
Militancy, warns social scientist Ashis Nandy, is the only other serious alternative for the youth who feel marginalised in today’s political scenario. "Current coalition politics is about being accessible mediators between powerful people, about having political experience without having a political base. Indian politics currently is no charming spectacle. It has no breathtaking ideals that could inspire the young. So, in the absence of positive movements like Jayaprakash’s Navanirman, radical, militant thoughts seem appealing."
Final year student of history at Delhi University, Suhas, who refuses to reveal his surname because it "reveals caste", bears out the truth of Nandy’s statement. He wants dictatorship. His hatred for the political animal is incredible. He rants about the Ganesh Chhaap Bidi advertisements printed in BJP’s newsletter Panchjanya. He accuses the Comrades of selling themselves to the highest bidders for a place in the government. "Goonda is contesting goonda in the polls and they have kept the rascals busy.Young dorks like us who have forgotten love for country, pride in nationalism because we are all busy preparing for IIT-JEE, CAT, SAT, GRE, UPSC or some such incredibly dumb coalition of alphabets. I want a dictator."
An alarming 23 per cent of the young respondents for the Outlook-MODE poll also want a dictator. Fortunately, 67 per cent still believe in Democracy. Despite everything. But they too seem to be fast losing hope. "I have voted for panchayat, zilla parishad, zilla samiti, municipality.... What difference will this election make to my life?" sighs Satyajit Samal, 22, final year pharmacy student from Jajpur assembly segment, Orissa. Says Madras-based unemployed science graduate S. Thiagarajan, 30, that if leadership moves to the young it might be even more damaging: "I notice these city boys and girls in talk shows of various channels.
They are so simplistic; they think by changing a few people here and there things will improve dramatically." Those in the rural pockets perhaps know even less. In a country, which is into training young girls for international beauty pageants, no one bothers to educate the village youth on elections. "No I have never voted before. I’ll vote if father says. I don’t know who the leaders are," is the stock reply of most youngsters in Gaon Khekra in western UP. Gulab Singh Gujjar, a young farmer in MP’s Mand Kasia village in Obedullaganj tehsil, knows a little more: "Their job is ghotalas, mine kheti. They won’t help me, I can’t stop them."
Such resignation. Worse than resentment perhaps. Worst that it comes from the country’s youth. The Left Out Constituents.